The host's nightmareAs soon as you allow other people to contribute material to your website, whether by comments to a blog, forum posts or something more substantial such as a wiki, you risk being held accountable for what they say. Even if you could rely on one of various defences, such as the "hosting" defence in the e-commerce directive, if a potentially defamatory comment has been brought to your attention, you are put in the invidious position of deciding whether to remove it or be prepared to defend your decision to allow it to stay. The various intermediary defences only go so far. If you bravely decide to keep it there, you may find yourself having to defend the statement itself. But of course if its not your statement, you may find that very difficult to do.
Last year I highlighted the problem this can cause for WhatDoTheyKnow but this is a problem that can affect vast numbers of website providers and of course any upstream posts they have. Surely this needs fixing?
What ought to happen?Suppose someone - call them X - finds that a really damaging, but false, allegation has been made about them on a website run by Y, which will, or at least is likely to, cause X harm but the statement was made by someone else - call them Z. Y acting as an innocent host (forum operator, blogger etc). It seems right that X should be able to do two things:
- have the statement removed, or at least corrected in some way
- be compensated for damages for any harm they have suffered
The defamation bill breaks this simple idea in at least two places.
Clause 10The existing clause 10(1) says:
A court does not have jurisdiction to hear and determine an action for defamation brought against a person who was not the author, editor or publisher of the statement complained of unless the court is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for an action to be brought against the author, editor or publisher.What this seems to be trying to do is to force claimants to go after the "real" culprit than an innocent intermediary. X must sue Z not Y. That seems entirely reasonable if we are talking about a claim for damages. If X can sue Z then they should get on and do it. But it may be utterly useless if X wants to prevent the continued publication of the statement. For example if X is able to sue Z and obtain damages but Y has closed Z's account (Z clearly being a troublemaker) then it is useless for X to obtain a court order against Z to stop the publication. Z no longer has the power to do so. Only Y can remove the statement, but X cannot sue Y - the court has no jurisdiction to hear their claim.
The single publication rule
“Legal Notice 30 July 2009: Mr Budu denies that he was an illegal immigrant. He was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK on 23 June 2004.”
Clause 8Clause 8 essentially abolishes the rule in the Duke of Brunswick case. It applies where anyone:
- publishes a statement to the public (“the first publication”), and
- subsequently publishes (whether or not to the public) that statement ora statement which is substantially the same.
The authors of this clause clearly had in mind newspaper archive style publication where the first publication is made in a blaze of prominence and later publications (via the archive) are simply parasitic on the first. A claimant, they obviously feel, has had an opportunity to make their complaint when the publication is first made and should not be able to challenge it later. For paper news that is later electronically archived I can see that might make sense.
But the web works differently. Many things are published in obscurity. In theory they are available to the world, but often search engines do not find them or at least consign them to many pages down the search results which is effectively the same thing. Sometimes something then happens to force the obscure into the limelight. A blog-post or an article might be found by someone influential and re-posted, re-tweeted or otherwise given more juice. It is at that moment that an obscure defamatory comment might come into the limelight and cause its subject problems.
As far as I can see clause 8 completely ignores the way the web actually works and relies on first publication being the most prominent. It gives a nod to a change in circumstance in 8(4) which says:
This section does not apply in relation to the subsequent publication if the manner of that publication is materially different from the manner of the first publication.But in my example the manner of publication has not changed. It is the way the web links to it that has and that is all important. The limitation period for defamation can be waived by the court in certain circumstances, so clause 8 might not be an absolute bar to a claim, but in my view it would be much better if the whole provision had been thought through properly bearing in mind the way the web now operates.